The Geetanjali Express lurched to a halt. Venkat got up with a jerk and looked out of the window of the three tier compartment. The all too familiar cacophony, common to any railway station, anywhere in the country, greeted him: "Chai, garam chai', 'taaza kela', 'fresh bread-omlette', 'paper, daily paper', 'T.T. Saab just one berth, I'll give you extra', 'coolie, coolie, come this way quick...." The sights, sounds and smells were all so familiar.
Peering out Venkat asked a hawker selling peanuts, "Which station is this?"
"Rourkela," the boy answered.
Venkat had got his favourite berth - a side berth and that too a lower one. He had started exactly twenty four hours ago from Mumbai. It would take him another eight to nine hours to reach his destination - Howrah. He had appeared for his ninth class exam and was going to spend his holidays with his sister and brother - in- law in Calcutta. This was his first visit and he was quite excited about spending two weeks in the 'City of Joy'.
"What is your berth number?"
Venkat was woken from his reverie by a gruff voice. He looked up. A short, balding man of around fifty was standing blinking at him?
The man turned to the woman who was standing behind him.
"They have given you upper berth. You can request the young fellow to shift upstairs ," he whispered and started adjusting a suitcase and two bags under the berth.
The woman sat on the berth opposite him and the man soon left after issuing some last minute instructions.
"Where are you going beta?" asked the woman.
"I am going to Kharagpur. To my elder daughter's house. She was married two years ago and this is my first visit. We stay in Rourkela. The man who spoke to you is my husband. He owns a grocer's shop - Pankaj Store."
Venkat was cursing his luck. The last twenty four hours had been quite comfortable. The upper berth had been allotted to a young man. The minute the train had left Mumbai station he had gone up and disappeared from sight. The lower berth had been left at Venkat's disposal and he had had a great time, lazing around, reading a Sidney Sheldon or simply looking out of the window at the countryside whizzing past him. But now this privacy had been destroyed. The woman sitting opposite him looked a compulsive talker and he had the feeling she wouldn't leave him alone. At the same time he didn't' want to shift up since it would be quite hot and stuffy.
"Here take some tea," the woman was now offering him tea in a glass.
"Its.... okay , no thanks."
"Why beta , you don't take tea?"
"I do but I haven't brushed my teeth."
"Doesn't matter. I have a thermos. I'll pour it back. You quickly brush your teeth and come and we can have tea together."
Venkat got up a bit reluctantly and removing his tooth brush and paste from his bag walked up to the washbasin.
Ten minutes later when he returned the lady handed him a plate in which there were two aloo paarathas and lemon pickle.
"What's this aunty?"
"Nothing beta.. I had told my Sudha not to pack anything since by lunch I would reach Sarla's place . But she insisted, saying that if the train was late then I would go hungry. You share some with me."
"Come on beta, I am like your mother. One should never say no to one's mother."
Actually the parathas were looking quite appetising. Venkat took the plate .
"Thanks. They are delicious."
"I know my Sudha is a good cook. Oh! I forgot. I have not told you about my children. You must be wondering who this Sudha is. I have three daughters: Sarla, Sudha and Sarita. Sarla is the eldest one. I... also had a son.... my youngest child ...he.... he died two years ago......"
"I ... am sorry," Venkat mumbled. "How did it happen? Was he ill?"
"No, beta. He was a healthy fourteen year old. One day he was coming home from tuition - he was a very good student. His teachers used to say that he would become a very big doctor or engineer or a great scientist. His father had put him in a convent school - English medium. He was the only one in the entire family who was going to a convent. And he could speak English so fluently - I am sure even the English, had they heard him would have been terribly impressed." She paused and wiping a tear from her eye, with a crumpled handkerchief, continued, "Those days we were staying in Nagpur. The anti reservation agitation was taking place all over the country. However, Nagpur had till then remained peaceful. That fateful day college students took out a procession protesting against the reservation policy. It was a peaceful procession when suddenly things went out of control. Buses were burnt, shops damaged and even a police station was attacked. The police resorted to lathi charge and then firing. My poor son who was returning home on his cycle totally unaware of the situation was caught in the cross fire. A single bullet fired from the gun of some sightless and heartless policeman went through his heart. He died on the spot." Tears were flowing down her cheeks and she made no attempt to wipe them.
Venkat felt really sad for her. He wanted to say something but didn't know what to. He just sat silently trying to share her grief in his own quiet way.
A little while later she asked him, "What is your name beta?"
"Venkatesh Rao. But my friends call me Venkat or Venky."
"My son's name was Pankaj. You know Pankaj means a lotus. And he was as beautiful as a lotus. Infact the moment I saw you I was reminded of Pankaj. Like you he too was very good looking. Except he was taller, much taller, fairer and also healthier. He used to look like a film hero. There was a kind of lustre , a sort of brilliance on his face. Something which you would see on the face of a sage like Swami Vivekananda."
Venkat looked at her, a trifle suprised. He had seen her husband. He could hardly be called good looking by any stretch of imagination. The woman too was quite odd to look at. She had small eyes, a flat, rather broad nose and buck teeth. It was hard to imagine their son being anything but ordinary looking. And yet she was saying that Venkat reminded her of him. Though Venkat was not an immodest young man, he was aware he was good looking. Tall, he was already five nine, fair, with thick curly hair, a sharp nose, bright eyes and an athletic body, he was considered handsome by most of his friends.
"Do you have a photograph of his?" Venkat asked, his curiosity getting the better of his reticence.
"Of course. I always carry his photo with me." The woman said and dipping her hand into a dirty gray handbag she took out a post card size colour photo and gave it to Venkat.
Venkat stared at the photo in amazement . Staring back at him was a fourteen year old boy. He was skinny, short - he couldn't have been more than five feet - and dark. He had inherited his mother's buck teeth and flat nose and his father's dark complexion. How could she have called this scrawny and pathetic creature handsome, compared him to film star and ....."
It was then that he remembered a Telugu saying 'Even a baby crow, to its mother, appears cute.'
It was not physical beauty but a mother's love and adoration for her dead son that had transformed him from an ugly duckling into a glorious swan - atleast in her eyes.
At Kharagpur, before getting down, the woman asked him, "Can you give me a photo of yours? "
Venkat was about to say no when he remembered he was carrying a couple of passport size photos in his wallet.
He handed her one .
"I'll always keep it with me, Venkat bete. And if you ever happen to come to Rourkela do come and visit us. Our house is on the station road, just above Pankaj Store."
She kissed him on his forehead and got down.
Venkat had lost this mother when he was four. He had no memories of her. But he knew as long as he lived, whenever he would think of his mother, the picture of an ugly, middle aged woman would come to his mind.